Sixteen years ago Brian Lara brought a West Indian cricket side to South Africa for the first time, writes LUKE ALFRED.
Eagerly-awaited, locally and in the Caribbean, it was a fractious, fatefully overheated tour, with an all-white South African side playing an all-black West Indies in the first Test at the Wanderers.
As far as the politicians were concerned, post-readmission patience with the meanderings of transformation was wearing thin; the West Indians themselves were riven with factionalism along age and inter-island lines, and Ali Bacher, the then UCBSA chief executive, and his captain Hansie Cronje’s hitherto excellent relationship began to sour as political pressures took their toll. Such was the West Indians’ disarray that they beat South Africa only once, losing the Test series 5-0 and being beaten in the subsequent one-dayers 6-1. The headline writers were quick to flex their tabloid muscle. The Test series win was described as a ‘Whitewash’. Racial innuendo, double-entendres and puerile punning were the order of the day.
For both teams the summer started in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Proteas beat the Windies in the final of the Wills International Cup, the tournament which later became the Champions Trophy, with Jacques Kallis scoring a priceless century. The teams flew immediately to South Africa but, unbeknown to many, an inner core of senior West Indians – including Lara, Carl Hooper and Courtney Walsh – flew instead to London, awaiting discussions with their board chief executive Pat Rousseau. Initially unaware that anything was wrong, the South Africans began to be concerned when Clive Lloyd, the tour manager who had accompanied the rest of the side to South Africa, phoned Bacher. With Lara and his senior pros holed up in a Heathrow hotel, unable to reach any consensus with Rousseau on a funding mechanism, Lloyd felt the tour was in jeopardy.
Bacher wondered how best to proceed. He phoned Jakes Gerwel, effectively Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man, and explained the predicament. Gerwel, who subsequently went on to become chairman of the 2003 World Cup organising committee (‘The best chairman I ever had,’ says Bacher), asked him to phone back in an hour. Within two, Gerwel had supplied Bacher with a letter signed by the president; a day after and Bacher, his letter, Lloyd and the rest of the team, flew to London to be reunited with the inner sanctum. ‘I didn’t tell anyone about the letter,’ says Bacher. ‘I didn’t tell my board. I didn’t tell Clive; nobody knew. But I knew I had the trump card. We booked into a hotel two blocks away from the players and waited.’
Clarity was slow to emerge. Who exactly was representing the disgruntled West Indian players? Was it Lara? Or Walsh? Or Roland Holder, the nominal players’ representative? Bacher remembers meeting Joel Garner for the first time. He, too, seemed to have answered the call to add his voice to an already chaotic situation. Eventually, with Walsh holding court in the hotel lobby a couple of days later, surrounded by journalists and television cameramen, who had by now picked up on the story, Bacher presented the letter. The palaver was effectively over. ‘Brian said to me recently [he was in South Africa to shoot a SuperSport interview]: “Doc, we took two minutes to reach a decision. How could we say no to Mandela?” To this day I don’t know if the issues were resolved. All I know is that the team got on the plane for Johannesburg and we saved the tour.’
Starting in early November and finishing at the beginning of February, the tour was an unusually long one. As well as games against the usual suspects, the itinerary also included matches against Invitation XIs being played in Soweto, Zwide, and Langa. At the 11th hour Seagrams South Africa stepped into the sponsorship breech vacated by the brewer, Kingfisher, and the UCB generously paid for all the hotel accommodation at Heathrow. Everything began to take on a slightly rosier glow.
As sportswriter Charles Randall wrote in the Daily Telegraph at the time: ‘The West Indians’ late arrival for their first senior Test series in South Africa, their date with history, at least whipped up the sort of media interest boxing promoters would die for.’
The first match, against a Nicky Oppenheimer XI in Randjesfontein, was cancelled due to the bunfight in London. A couple of days later, the tourists finally got on to the park, playing against a Gauteng Invitation XI in a 50-over game at the carefully selected venue of Elkah Oval in Soweto. The tourists batted first, posting 258-7, Lara and Hooper both scoring fifties and a youngster by the name of Shiv Chanderpaul eking out 34 not out batting at nine. The Gauteng Invitation side’s batting would have been opened by Adam Bacher and Solly Ndima except the heavens opened at lunchtime and the match was abandoned. On their way back to their hotel, Rousseau and his wife were robbed at gunpoint, another setback nobody needed.
Two weeks later Adam Bacher opened the innings with Gary Kirsten in the first Test at the Bullring. It was a low-scoring affair. The South Africans held a first innings lead of seven before bowling the visitors out for 170 in their second dig (Shaun Pollock 4-49, Pat Symcox 3-43), which meant they needed to score just 164 to win the Test. They nearly made a hash of it, with Daryll Cullinan’s departure for 35 leaving them exposed at 58-3. The Windies were unable to press home their advantage, and although Walsh and Curtly Ambrose took 11 of the 16 South African wickets to fall, the home side wriggled free against the tourists’ backup bowlers for a squeaky four-wicket win.
Despite the victory, South African tempers were fraying behind the scenes. Steve Tshwete, the minister of sport, was taking heat from his caucus about the composition of the Test side, and Mvuzo Mbebe and Mluleki George, head of the National Sports’ Council, weighed in. Bacher was forced to call a board meeting after the Test to discuss selection which, in turn, put considerable strain on his relationship with good friend Peter Pollock, the selection convener. ‘We adopted the policy of a team of colour unless there were particular circumstances to the contrary,’ he said. ‘The irony was that the first casualty of that policy was my nephew, Adam. To my brother Issy’s credit, they never took it out on me.’
Adam scored one and six at the Wanderers and it was felt that Herschelle Gibbs, as a nominal player of colour, needed an opportunity in the second Test at St George’s Park. In an even lower-scoring game than the first, Gibbs scored two and four. With the West Indians being bowled out for 141 and 121, the match was over on the third afternoon as South Africa won by 178 runs, and the Proteas went 2-0 up.
Part of the tour’s backstory had to do with the images conjured up by the great West Indian teams of the 1980s. Many black politicians and sports administrators held such teams in exceptionally high regard and they couldn’t wait to see the contemporary versions of that tradition in the flesh. Not only were they to become increasingly disappointed with the West Indians’ gutlessness as the tour progressed, but they also became angry with their perceived manipulation by white administrators, who they believed were blind to the broader cricket constituency who wanted to see black faces in the national side.
This then gave rise to embarrassment as hosts. How important could such politicians and administrators be if, contrary to their views, the national side remained resolutely white? Such were some of the bubbling emotional dynamics which led to Tshwete coming to the boil after the South Africans easily won the third Test at Kingsmead to win the series, the Windies’ sixth consecutive series defeat away from home. ‘I am worried we will be sending white teams to the rugby and cricket World Cups in Britain this year. If that is the case, it will be difficult for me to support them,’ he said.
So the tourists trudged off to the fourth Test at Newlands, where on the Sunday of the Test the board adopted the Transformation Charter, which recognised the ‘moral and historic need’ to address the plight of the ‘truly disadvantaged’. Tshwete was magnanimous, but not entirely convinced, pointing out that there needed to be greater black representation at provincial level. The South African juggernaut, meanwhile, rolled through the summer, winning at Newlands and Centurion in the fifth Test. It was shortly after that fifth Test that Bacher met the team, arguing for an expanded squad for the upcoming ODIs, which would include Henry Williams and Victor Mpitsang, the only black player in the 17. It was not a conversation Cronje found to his liking. He felt that not enough credit was given to the Test side for their resounding 5-0 win, as Bacher played politics. Bacher admits that their relationship was never the same.
A chink of light appeared for the increasingly injury-stalked and bedraggled West Indies in East London at the end of the month. In the second ODI, Chanderpaul scored 20 fours in a 136-ball 150 and, with Hooper also scoring a century, the tourists clipped to 292. They defended their lead – winning by 43 runs – and the series was square at 1-1. It turned out to be the best result of a chaotic, unhappy summer, chaos engulfing both sides for very different reasons.
This feature appears in the current issue of Business Day/Sunday Times Sport Monthly.